Social Science blog

33 posts categorized "Propaganda"

27 April 2016

Propaganda course nominated for Learning on Screen Award

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Update! We won! Very pleased to say that our film won the Courseware and Curriculum Non-Broadcast award. Details are at Congratulations to Director Alec Millward, author and presenter Maiken Umbach and all involved. 

We're very excited to report that one of the films from our online course Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life has been nominated for a Learning on Screen award.

The Battle for Civilisation, British leaflet from Word War Two

The award, to be announced on the evening of 28th April, is in the category of Courseware and Curriculum non-broadcast production. Our film, 'From the "Just War" to the "Unjust Peace"', features in week 2 of our course, which addresses issues related to justice and protest. The film is presented by Maiken Umbach, Professor of History at the University of Nottingham and one of the lead educators on our course. Learners are asked to consider the problem of violence and justice, reflecting on an exhibition of photographs made by Lee Miller. The photographs document the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, including images of violence against the Nazi perpetrators of atrocities. For our course, the question is whether violent methods have a role to play in justice, and the role of war as a means of restoring justice.

The films in our course are designed to explain current thinking and research around issues that are often complex and contested. Bringing a range of perspectives on propaganda and ideology, they feature researchers from disciplines, including history, politics, sociology, media studies and psychology. Our course has 18 short films in total, four of which were made at the British Library and feature material from our collections of maps, Chinese posters, and British World War Two publications.

As with other learning steps on the course, the aim is to generate an informed and diverse debate on politically significant topics that have relevance to our everyday life. When we first ran the course last year, we attracted thousands of learners from over 20 countries around the world. Across the five weeks of the course, participants learned from each others' experience and opinions, and drawing on the leading-edge research presented in the learning steps.

We're very excited that a film from our course has been nominated for a Learning on Screen award, and wish Maiken, director Alec Millward, and the production team the best of luck for Thursday evening. Our course starts on 16th May, and you can register for free now at

20 April 2016

Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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Our free online course Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life starts on 16th May 2016

Svoboda po-amerikanski (Freedom, American Style) by B Prorokov, 1971

Freedom, justice, community, place and choice: words which are politically-charged and fundamental in our experience of everyday lives. Over five weeks, our online course explores how words and images gain different meanings, how we interpret the symbols we encounter, and how these interpretations are sometimes 'quoted back' to us with a specific political intent.

Our course is developed and delivered with the Centre for the Study of Political Ideologies at the University of Nottingham. Learners can sign up for the course now, free of charge, at the FutureLearn website. Learning is structured across a small number of activities each week, which are broken down into simple steps. A step might be a short video presentation, or a reading or a question to discuss. Discussion is the most important part of our course, allowing us to learn from each-other's experiences and opinions. The nature of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) means that we can explore our shared interests in comparative political study and the way in which our material worlds reflect and shape our political experience.

This is the second year in which we have run this course. In 2015, we had nearly 12,000 learners from 20 countries around the world. Our focus on learning through discussion meant that all participants, including those of us who developed the course, learnt through contributing to a lively debate that ran through all five weeks. Some of this learning has been incorporated into this year's course, including a focus on the experience of migration in expressions of identity, and how definitions of the 'unnatural' influences our political views. In preparation for this year, we have reviewed and updated course content, including the addition of four new films.     

A unique feature of our course is that we ask participants to share images either that they find online or of photographs that they have taken themselves. These images relate to the themes discussed each week, and are surprising in how they reveal our responses to concepts such as 'freedom', 'nature' and 'community'. Many of the images shared last year were of open spaces, representing nature as an expression of freedom but also as something threatened by unrestrained freedom or consumption. You can see a selection of images shared on our Flickr site.

We were incredibly impressed by the quality of interaction on our course last year, and learners were very positive about course content and the course leaders. We hope that you will join us from 16th May when the course restarts, and sign up today at

27 February 2015

Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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This week, we announced our new online course Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life. This is the first online course of its type that is using the Library's collections, and we are developing and delivering it with the Centre for the Study of Ideologies at the University of Nottingham. The course will start in May, and run on the FutureLearn platform.

During the course, learners will explore and debate issues such as: freedom, community, place, justice and choice. These concepts form the building blocks of our political views but they mean different things to different people. We'll be exploring how those words come to hold different meanings and how political ideas can impact on everyday lives.

B. Prorokov, Freedom American-Style. 1971. (detail of poster).

There are two academic leads on the course. Mathew Humphrey, Professor of Political Theory, works on environmental political theory and theories of ideology. Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History, researches the relationship between political ideas and material culture (eg through the built environment or private photography).

The 5-week course draws on themes and items used in our 2013 exhibition, Propaganda Power and Persuasion. One of the most enjoyable aspects of curating that exhibition was giving public tours and talking to people as they visited the exhibition. This is a subject that everybody has an opinion on and experience of, and this new course will provide a new space in which to continue discussions started during that exhibition, and to look at the subject in a new light.

An exciting aspect of this course is that we'll be calling on learners to post images to an online gallery, contributing to the debate on what freedom or protest or community might mean. The online nature of the course means that people can join from all over the world, and there are no previous qualifications or experience required to take part.

Registration is open now. You can fnd out more, and see a video trailer for the course online.


10 November 2014

Saturday 15th November: Too much information? Join the debate

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This Saturday, the British Library and Speakers Corner Trust will be at Senate House, University of London, to help celebrate the launch of the Being Human Festival. We're very excited that Zoe Williams and Jeremy Gilbert will be joining us to introduce our two debates, 'Truth, Propaganda and Purpose', and 'Truth, Lies and the Individual'.  

'Too Much Information?' is the theme for the day at Senate House, which will hold talks, workshops, and tours to explore the role of communication, and new communication technologies and behaviours, in our everyday lives. Many of the events focus on the Ministry of Information, which found its wartime home at Senate House, and Mass Observation, the organisation that provided the Ministry with public opinion research.

  Websmall-Orwellian Senate House by Andy Day1
Senate House, University of London. Photograph by Andy Day.

The day doesn't just focus on communication in the recent past though. There are fast-paced presentations on new research in the digital humanities, and workshops on researching the UK Web Archive. The day concludes with 'Openess, Secrets and Lies', a discussion on information sharing, privacy and secrecy online. The panel includes Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Heather Brooke, Ben Hammersley and Doc Rocket.

Our public debates are a chance for you to respond to the themes of the day, and tell us your concerns and aspirations for the way that we communicate in the 21st century. At 1.40pm, join us to debate 'Truth, Propaganda and Purpose'. Author and journalist Zoe Williams will introduce our debate, where we will discuss what forms of political communication and persuasion online are justifiable - and how easy is it for us to discover "the truth" online anyway?

At 3.20pm, Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory, University of East London, will introduce, 'Truth, Lies and the Individual'. What expectations do we have of others when we communicate online, what standards (if any) do we want to see applied, and do we know how to "play by the rules"?

Join us in the Crush Hall, on the ground floor of Senate House, and let us know what you think.    

07 August 2014

Play the Game!

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At the start of World War One, professional sports associations came under intense pressure to cancel fixtures. Clubs and supporters alike were criticised for taking part in leisure activities that diverted the energies of "fit young men" from the armed services. Such criticism was felt acutely by the Football Association, as the football season was about to start. Against this background, the FA and clubs alike argued that professional football, and matches, made a significant contribution to the war effort, and that criticisms of players and supporters alike were disproportionate and unfair. Fundraising at matches, and the establishment of a football 'Pals Battalion', were both widely promoted.

Play the game” Sharpen up ‘Spurs…Join the Football Battalions of the Die-Hards (17th Middlesex) [text: blue]. Issued by the Publicity Department, Central London Recruiting Depot Printed by The Haycock-Cadle Co., [1914?]. British Library ref: Tab.11748.a (number 93) 

If you attended football matches in Britain during the First World War, you would be likely to see posters of this nature displayed at grounds. At the start of the War, Britain had a small professional army, and recruitment was a vital early goal. Unlike many other European countries, Britain did not have a system of conscription, a situation that remained until early 1916.

In the first decades of the 20th century, posters were even more part of everyday life, and, alongside newspapers, the most significant form of mass-communication. When we think about wartime recruitment posters, we often imagine the visually iconic examples, technically very skilled and with a strong and direct emotional appeal. Some striking examples of these can be seen in our current exhibition Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour.

However, many posters were much simpler, relying on bold text to get their message across. Our collections at the British Library reveal a mix of complex and more simple designs. Despite their apparent simplicity, the football posters showed a good understanding of their audience. The use of humour to create a sense of camaraderie was significant, as the call was to join a 'Pals Battalion' of football players and supporters.

Do you want to be a Chelsea die-hard? [text: blue] Issued by the Publicity Department, Central London Recruiting Depot Printed by The Haycock-Cadle Co., [1914?] British Library ref Tab.11748.a (number 101)

The 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, with recruiting offices at West Africa House, Kingsway, was established during December 1914, for players, officials and supporters of football. The Battalion was formed in an atmosphere of hostility towards the continuance of sporting fixtures, with much public criticism directed at professional football. During the late summer of 1914, a number of vocal and well-publicised commentators complained about the continuance of public entertainments that, they argued, diverted young men from volunteering to join the army. 

Professional football in particular came in for criticism, putting pressure on the Football Association to cancel matches and the 1914-15 FA Cup. The criticism reflected class prejudices against professional sports (as opposed to amateur) in general, and football in particular, as players and supporters were admonished for ignoring their "greater duty". Professional players were presented as employees rather than sportsmen, and clubs were criticised for not releasing players from contracts so that they could sign up. In response, the FA pointed to the small numbers of professional players who received a living wage, that many had already signed up (and no clubs had refused to release a player from a contract), and that professional matches had been used as venues for recruitment and raising substantial funds for war relief. 

Men of Millwall ... [1914?]. British Library ref: Tab.11748.a (number 117)

The 17th Battalion left for France in November 1915, suffering heavy casualties at the battle of the Somme in 1916, and, later, at Redan Ridge, Oppy and Cambrai. The battalion is also remembered for Walter Tull, the first black infantry officer in the British army, and a professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. Tull was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in May 1917, and killed in action in France in 1918. The 17th Battalion itself was disbanded at the beginning February 1918, as part of a wider reorganisation of British troops fighting in France, although members of the battalion continued fighting in different units. Six years later, in 1924, the president of the Football Association unveiled a memorial tablet to all footballers who had fought and died during the war.

An appeal to good sportsmen… F.J. Wall, Secretary, Football Association [text: red, black]. Issued by the Publicity Department, Central London Recruiting Depot Printed by The Haycock-Cadle Co., 1914. 18th November 1914.
British Library ref: Tab.11748.a (number 92)

Further reading

Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp. 2008. When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers' Battalion in the Great War. Somerset: Haynes Publishing.
Available in the British Library at: YC.2010.a.1402

Everard Wyrall. 1926 & 1929. The Die-Hards in the Great War. A history ... 1914-1919. 2 vol. London: Harrison & Sons.
Available in the British Library at:

01 November 2013

Challenging myths and understanding society

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On the evening of the 15 October we held the 20th and final event in our series (with the Academy of Social Sciences) on ‘Myths and Realities’. The series began in 2009 and has examined discrepancies between political and press representations of social issues such as immigration, nutrition, education, crime, food, the environment, welfare and more to understand the gap between social science evidence and more broadly accepted and propagated social ‘truths’. Each event included talks from academics and social science practitioners in which they presented evidence from their field about the particular set of beliefs under discussion. Nearly all of the events have been podcast and are available here as well as on SoundCloud to download.

The final event was chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch and the speakers were Professors Ivor Gaber and John Holmwood. It aimed to take a broad view of the role of the press and politicians in reproducing particular narratives about our society and to examine the role of social scientists in presenting evidence and challenging misconceptions.

Prof. Gaber gave the first presentation, and with a background in journalism and communications, offered his insights into the notion that as a journalist, one should ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. Gaber critiqued this axiom to show that whilst this way of working could be seen to be responsible for many of the current ‘myths’ about society (e.g. the ‘scroungers’ discourse, ‘problem families’, ‘drugs’, ‘immigration’ and so on), it is also a cultural facet of an industry which is highly pressured and competitive, shaped by particular patterns of ownership and bias as well as by audience expectations. Gaber drew on writers such as Stanley Cohen (e.g. Folk Devils and Moral Panics) and Stuart Hall (e.g. in Policing the Crisis) to talk about the way in which particular narratives about society become subject to exaggeration and distortion as well as about how the press are often guilty of giving primacy to the views and opinions of particular groups (as has been discussed again more recently in relation to the ‘riots’ of 2011). Finally, Gaber raised the question of what objectivity is to the press (a ‘gold standard?’, ‘worthy aspiration?’) and finished on a lighter note with this comic song by Dan and Dan films!

Above: 'News on the way' by Vratislav Darmek Cc-by

Prof. John Holmwood’s presentation took a different approach, deconstructing the notion of the ‘expert’ social scientist verses the general public/the press. He suggested that there is a danger to the notion of democracy in thinking of oneself (in this case, the social scientist) as the expert or definer of what counts as valid knowledge. In fact, and as recent events have shown, it is in the public interest to question the nature of ‘expertise’. This took me back to another event held here at the British Library (to which Holmwood contributed) where we examined the relationship between power and knowledge (asking whose knowledge counts?). He suggested that when we think of lived realities, and how these realities are perceived and understood by the individual through various practices and experiences, it can become difficult to make a clear distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’. If this position is held to be a useful one to take when considering beliefs in other areas of social science, then why isn’t the same approach taken when we examine the different ‘truths’ about society put forward by the press, the public, and social scientists?  Holmwood suggested that there was some truth in Paul Dacre’s recent point that politicians and the press on the left perhaps do not trust the public enough. Holmwood’s intervention was a useful and in some ways surprising one which gave the audience plenty of food for thought for subsequent participatory session as well as for events we hold in the future.

The audience contributed to the subsequent discussion with questions such as:

  • Are all these ‘myths’ necessarily always right-wing?
  • Why does the value of cognitive psychology not feature in this discussion?
  • How do ‘myths’ and ‘realities’ around pornography feature in this context?

The event itself (excluding audience questions and further discussion I’m afraid) can now be viewed as a video online via our YouTube channel. Please feel free to use this video to generate your own discussions, or in your teaching, and please feel free to share the link!

02 October 2013

The realities behind the social ‘myths’

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The final event in our long-running and successful series of social science debates ‘Myths and Realities’ (in partnership with the Academy of Social Sciences) takes place on the evening of 15th October. It will be a bit of a celebration of the series (with a drink included in the ticket price) as well as a chance to address the broad question of why we (members of the general public as well as our politicians!) often believe the various social ‘myths’, rhetoric and narratives that we do, despite evidence to the contrary which is often available for public access.

For example, government figures suggest that benefit fraud costs the nation around £1.6 billion last year whilst tax fraud costs around £14 billion. So why then is the cost of benefit fraud to the nation seen as far higher in the public imagination? This is just one example of the kind of gap between widely held views about society and the evidence about social and economic reality that this series has explored. Other examples include the social reality of immigration, addiction, work-life ‘balance’, crime and punishment, educational standards (not as good as my day!) and health and food (is the modern diet really as bad as all that?) and social class (are we really all middle-class now?). We’ve had some great speakers from the academic realm and from policy and practice across the series, and many of our podcasts are on the British Library’s website as well as on SoundCloud.

WEB Myths and Realities FINAL
Our final event will build and draw on the questions and points raised across the series to examine the role of the press in producing and maintaining some of these social ‘myths’. We will look at how we, as members of the public, access evidence about the society we live in (and whether we are interested in doing so?), the responsibility and role of our politicians in revealing social ‘truths’  and what social scientists could be doing to bring about greater clarity for all.

The event will be chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch who was awarded her CBE for services to Social Science in 1999, she is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchester and was Vice Chancellor of Keele University.

WEB SMALL Janet_Finch_0530
Above: Professor Dame Janet Finch. By Mholland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Our speakers will be:

Professor Ivor Gaber, Professor of Journalism at City University. As well as having worked as a senior editor for major news organisations such as the BBC and Channel Four, he has published widely on political communications and has also worked as a media consultant for various organisations and governments.

Professor John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He is the President of the British Sociological Association and co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University. His current research addresses issues of pragmatism and public sociology.

Please join us for an evening of discussion and debate, as well as a glass of wine to celebrate the end of the series! Tickets are available via the British Library events pages and box office.

p.s. In 2014 we will be launching a new series of social science events for the public. Watch this space...

13 September 2013

Propaganda, the geography of not-knowing and the history of ignorance

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Toby Austin Locke, a member of the Social Sciences department at the British Library, writes about the dangers of forms of propaganda which promote non-action and acceptance.

We tend to think of propaganda as something fairly active; a message or instruction to act or think in a certain way, a persuasive force. The images that spring to mind when we speak of propaganda, the quasi-mythological Uncle Sam, the deified images of noble Soviet workers, or even the seductive images that flit across our television screens and line the walls of the underground stations, all appear to encourage us to act or think in a certain way, to stand by our country, to honour the workers, to use the right aftershave in order to achieve absolute sexual virility. But the current exhibition here at the British Library has made me start thinking about another form of what could be considered propaganda, a form that is potentially far more pervasive and powerful. Propaganda that rather than persuading us to think or act in a certain way,  encourages us not to think or act at all, to keep our heads down, to maintain our apathy.

Above: Soviet Women c.1920 by Unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright statement and download here. [Public domain]

There is a famous piece of propaganda which illustrates this particularly well, one which has recently seen resurgence in the popular imagination and has transformed from an old, forgotten piece of state propaganda to a potent commercial image, practically a brand in its own right. I’m thinking of the famous Ministry of Information poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ This image was never used for its intended purpose. It was originally designed to be distributed should Nazi forces have invaded England.

The sentiment behind this message is open to questioning. Would the British public really be encouraged to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had Hitler’s forces reached England? Would we really want to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as fascism took hold of Europe?

Above: Keep Calm and Carry On. By original poster by UK Government, enhancements, conversion to PNG by oaktree_b, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright and download here. [Public domain]

To my mind at least the answer is no. When atrocities are occurring all around you, when ethics are no longer a matter of concern, when peoples lives and existence are at stake, the last thing I would like to see happen is for everyone to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Surely if there are ever times for people to rise up and take action, it would be under such conditions.

The question I’m trying to raise here, perhaps a little clumsily, is regarding the role of non-action, of ignoring, of not knowing in certain power relations. In a short video snippet, Bruno Latour briefly mentions two possible areas of study: the geography of not knowing and the history of ignorance. He points out the work-like elements of knowing, the labour involved in knowledge, that may often make not-knowing or ignoring the easier option. Facing up to painful truths is certainly not easy, but does ignoring the ethical consequences of such truths seem like the best alternative? It comes back to J.S. Mill’s statement “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (2010 :46) Would we rather know and act to attain ethical outcomes and perhaps be dissatisfied, or remain in ignorance and contentment?

It could be suggested that such a message is found articulated in political discourse today through the current UK Government’s mantra regarding people who want to ‘work hard and get on’ and the pan-European political insistence of the necessity of austerity. Supporters of the welfare state across the country are coming out in protest against the ‘bedroom tax’ and wider austerity measures, but the mantra of Government, particularly regarding those who want to ‘get on’, offers them no support – it is here to support those who keep their head down and keep going. Whilst there are equally arguments to be heard in favour of the Government’s approach, a supporter of welfare provision could certainly make a case for this mantra being a reincarnation of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to propaganda, encouraging people to look the other way, and not think too hard about the wider consequences of what is going on around them. Of course, the ethical implications of such an approach are open to debate, and are certainly not about to be resolved here.

Toby Austin Locke currently works on the Social Welfare Portal at the British Library. The views represented here are his own and do not reflect those of the organisation. You can follow him on twitter @BLSocialWelfare (in a professional capacity) and his personal twitter account is @TobyaLocke.

Toby Austin Locke is currently working in the British Library social sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London. You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke or read more of his blog-posts at - See more at: